Sometimes it pays not to listen to your mother.
During a recent interview to promote “Spider-Man 3,” Topher Grace, one of the new kids featured in the film that hits theaters on Friday, recalled his mom’s objections to her son reading comic books and playing video games.
“When are you ever going to use that in your future?” she asked.
Well mom, apparently your baby boy did the right thing by defying you. Grace, best known as the geeky Eric in “That '70s Show,” is making the skills he learned on the pages of his Marvel comics pay off by playing a dark villain in the highest-grossing film franchise in history. He’s working for Sam Raimi and starring opposite Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco and Thomas Haden Church.
And guess what? They’re all playing iconic comic book characters!
Howya like him now, Ma?
“I just hope America’s comfortable with me kicking Spider-Man’s ass,” said Grace, who plays the dual role of photographer Eddie Brock and Spider-Man nemesis Venom. “That’s what’s about to happen.”
Oh, if only that were the case.
‘There are no bad guys in these movies’Conversely, Grace’s partner in crime — Thomas Haden Church — probably didn’t get that same lecture. A Texas native, Church was more into sports than comic books, but he too seemed really at home playing Flint Marko/Sandman, one of the bad dudes who mixes it up with Spidey.
“I think they wanted the character to be someone like me who is kind of rough around the edges and maybe has a dark past, but at the same time Flint was a guy you could kind of root for once you found out what he was all about,” said Church about his conflicted character, who is trying to avenge the death of his daughter. “I love playing those types of characters.
“There are no bad guys in these movies. They’re just people who are corrupted in some way. Their value system gets corrupted. I believe that this is true in this movie with these characters — that they’re all empathetic or sympathetic in some way. That’s the complexity of them.”
Although Grace was initially a little uneasy about playing Eddie/Venom, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to flex a different muscle. One it took six months of training to build.
“I’m such a big fan of the comics, and I know I’m not very similar to Eddie Brock,” Grace confessed. “He’s like much older and a muscle-bound guy. I had to work out for six months for the role. I could never be what he was in the comic books.”
Like most of the villains who appear in the Spidey films, Church and Grace are not your typical comic-book bad guys. They have depth.
“As is historic in the Marvel universe the villains are not just mustache-twirling bad guys,” says producer Laura Ziskin. “There’s always some underlying agenda or motive.”
That’s one of the reasons why Grace thinks the “Spider-Man” movies are so relevant.
“I think what everyone really falls in love with is Peter Parker,” Grace said. “My character is kind of reactionary to Peter Parker. If you think about Spider-Man, his abilities really aren’t as amazing as the fact that he’s the superhero that I understand. He’s like a normal guy who has real problems. He can’t make it work with his girl, he can’t pay the rent. Even when I was younger that’s why I was such a big fan of the comic book. It’s really what set it apart.
“I can’t relate to being a billionaire playboy, and I can’t relate to being from Krypton. But being in a low-rent situation in New York and having trouble with some girl you have a crush on is very relatable, I think.”
Raimi thought both his villains brought new energy to the franchise. He was convinced that Church was right for the role after spotting him tearing up during his acceptance speech at the Broadcast Critics Awards two years ago. Church won the best supporting actor trophy for his performance in “Sideways.”
“Thomas Haden Church brought life to the role of Sandman,” Raimi said. “He brought with him two very important elements as an actor. One, he had the physical size and a menace that he can draw upon, and he’s someone you might believe could threaten Spider-Man. And he’s also someone you might believe could have been guilty of this crime of killing Uncle Ben.
“I needed someone who had a soul and who you could believe needed forgiveness. I don’t think you can fake that on screen. That’s why he was so important for this picture.”
Hating and loving Grace as Venom
Dunst, who had some memorable scenes with Venom, thought Grace was perfect for the role of a womanizing, brown-noser who eventually got trapped in his own web of evil and deceit.
“Topher, even when you want to hit him, you kind of love him at the same time because you can see through him,” she said. “You see that he’s an insecure little brat. To me, I just kind of roll my eyes at it. It was nice to have somebody who was a villain who had like some humor — who was a little see-through and not up for the job.”
But while Grace praised Dunst and the rest of the cast for rolling out the welcome mat it was still rather daunting being green.
“I remember the first one coming out and being the biggest thing ever and the second one coming out and being even better than the first one,” he said. “So yeah, it was kind of nerve-wracking and I knew I wanted to do a good job because I had such love for the character from being a kid and reading the comic book. James and Tobey and Kirsten and Sam have done two together, and it’s not a coincidence that they’ve been so successful.
“They just want to be good and work really hard on it, and it is a big deal. A lot of people see these movies.”